IN spite of the crisp November air, and the full moon, and the silent naked forest ahead, Ring Tail the Raccoon was uneasy. Moreover, he was tired, and the bedded comfort of his home in the old maple seemed a long way off. Sometimes, when he was rested and surfeited with field mice, it was fun to plague the hounds — to match his craft against their speed, and his cunning against their scent; to keep them baying their frustration in foolish, revealing wastefulness.
But now, under the soft languor of the moon, he turned wearily and, clutching the rotting top of a stump with his humanized forepaws, drew himself slowly up, and settled there, his bushy tail draped over the barkless bole. Turning his broad flat face southward, cutting forward his widespread catlike ears, he drained the winter night of sound: the soft whish of the wind in a near-by pine; the distant yap of a young fox; the feathered furtive passage of a horned owl; the scampering rustle of a field mouse. All of them he heard, vaguely, not concerned, his delicate auditory membranes searching deeper, pushing further back for reception, penetrating a longer silence. Against the tarnished silvery glow of the moon the two tapering bands of white over his keen bright eyes stood intensely fixed. Only his luxuriant tail, idly draped, belied in its gentle winded motion the concern he felt.
Then he heard it again, and the sound went into him, and he shuddered, drawing up his tail. Rising, he looked steadily across the field, southward, his round eyes wide against the moonlight, his nostrils narrowly dilated. Like a statue in silvery gray he stood, tense, his high broad flank even over the powerful stance of his long hind legs. Into the soft decay of the stump his razor-armed paws bit deeply, destroying with heedless ease the annular record of a dozen long-ago years. The baying came again, stronger, more eager. Already the hounds had found his tracks — tracks he had, in weary security, taken no pains to conceal.
Reaching down, his shadow running out from the rising moon in weird distortion, Ring Tail left the stump, heading northward. Toward the fingering thickness of the forest, conscious of the long climb, he made his way slowly across the clearing. Even the ground, brittle with new cold, carpeted in sparse lifeless verdure, jarred the fatigue in his legs. And a strange fear welled within him — a fear foreign to his remarkable energy and resourcefulness. For the first time in a long and tempestuous life he felt the inroads of age. The necessity of cunning irked, and he ground his sharp strong teeth fiercely.
As Ring Tail reached the alder-bordered edge of the forest the hounds broke into wild, choppy yapping. Already his scent was fresher, easier to follow, undeviating. The realization spurred him on, and he trotted up the barkless trunk of a fallen tree and, turning, trotted back again, springing far to the left, breaking his trail. At an angle he went on, rapidly, forcing his weariness, moving steadily into the grade, eager for home. The moon broke through, fitfully, washing over his quick passage, thinning the forest. The brook where he brought his food for washing came down to him out of the west, noisy in turbulent tirelessness. He paused to look at it, remembering cool shade and soft shadows and silvery silence; seeing, over tired eyes, the lazy leaflike tumble of a bat, hearing the soft beat of its delicate patagium; feeling the resilient moss coming up on his legs, like swampland, forcing him to lie in it, spread out, his short nose deep-buried, his eyes blinking, refusing to stay open.
But now the hounds were in the clearing. And he looked ahead, into the thin cold starlight, to the grade among the gaunt leafless boles of oak and ash and cherry birch; seeing it, feeling his weariness. Gathering himself, he set out along the bank of the stream, worming his way dexterously among the whiplike alder. No longer was he concerned with the dull snapping of twigs or the trackable warmth of his trail.
Not until a ledge loomed in his path did Ring Tail hesitate. Then, in the shadow of an enormous pine, he turned slowly and, resting his broad flank against the trunk, looked back. Not twenty yards away a hound raced through a patch of moonlight, head low, ears flapping like crows’ wings. Save for the gurgle of the brook and the yap of the dogs far below, not another sound broke the November silence.
Only for a second Ring Tail studied the needled heights. Then he squared his haunches and, pressing his back firmly to the trunk, waited. Without a sound the hound came on, his short legs churning rapidly, his jowls open over the flapping side-hang of his tongue. Raising his forepaws defensively, Ring Tail watched, tense, a murderous desire burning in his large dark eyes. Not until ten feet separated them did the hound see his foe. Then, gulping his tongue, swallowing tacky saliva, he yapped once and charged.
Braced, forgetting weariness, Ring Tail struck with a razor-edged forepaw; struck downward, hard, his toes spread out, curved. The blow caught the hound below the left ear, swept forward, laying bare in three gaping furrows the loose flesh along his neck. As the hound’s fangs swept in, Ring Tail sidestepped, lashing out with his left, hooking viciously. Already the warm odor of blood lay close to the trunk. It clung to his toes, slimy, like the pooled water over a mud flat. Still on guard, wary, he faced the dazed stumbling of the hound; faced him, confident, his weariness gone.
Blood streaming from his wounds, the dog turned away, slowly, his head low. Like an old man he turned, nursing his pain, struggling to understand.
But Ring Tail was happy. For the first time in his life he had faced his most persistent foe; had stood up to the bared powerful fangs and with deft quick strokes slashed his way to an easy victory. In the shade of the old pine he dropped to all fours, watching the uncertain retreat of the hound, conscious of the pools of moonlight, relaxed.
Suddenly a new sound rose above the yap of the dogs; a sound that went deep, restoring an old fear. Down-curling his claws in the hard-packed pine needles, Ring Tail listened. A man’s voice came to him, loudly, the tone of it clear in the cold. Then another, more to the westward, drawing his head around, disturbing. The light of a lantern appeared, too, flickering between the boles of the trees, far down, beyond the hounds.
Quickly Ring Tail started up the ledge, picking his way, following knife-edged black seams, planning escape. Like gripping fingers his paws clutched the pustulated rock, steadying his bulk, drawing upward. From the top he could see the brook again, tumbling through a circle of moonlight against a ferny wall, breaking into silvered wavy stalactites. Desperate, conscious of long exertion, he started for the water. The rocks near the base of the falls were slippery, slime-coated, wet with spray. But he plunged on to them, stumbling, striving to keep his feet, whipping his tail for balance. Steadily he moved toward the falls, feeling the cold, hearing the tireless bark of the hounds; hearing it even above the plunge of the water.
Closer and closer he went, feeling the spray, squinting against the cold beat of it, forgetting the sag of his tail. Then, suddenly, he was immersed in the roar of the falls. And the moonlight, like a ghostly apparition, shone blurred and indistinct through a vaporous cloud. Struggling to keep his feet, feeling the cold dampness, he made his way under the falls. For a moment the roar of the water frightened him. He felt a tensity inside, and only with effort kept himself from a mad scramble.
Coming out, unhesitating, he turned sharply and leaped from the wet rocks to the furrowed trunk of a wild cherry. Clutching it, gathering his waning energy, he climbed rapidly. When abreast of the top of the falls he ran out on a convenient limb and leaped to the sagging trunk of a water-gutted pine. Sitting up, tongue-drying his muzzle, he rested.
Below, beyond the scene of his combat, two men with lanterns came into a patch of moonlight. Four hounds strained at their leashes, pulling at the men, nose-pressing the ground. Then he saw another dog, unrestrained, moving slowly, going up to the men. And he saw them drop their lanterns, yanking the dogs aside, hitching them to a tree. For another minute he watched their huddled concentration. Then a strange new thrill ran through him, and he dropped to the ground and, turning northward, forgot the cold and the pain and utter weariness.
CALVIN W. WALKER